Friday, December 28, 2012

Question of the Week (Vayechi): In A Torah Scroll, What Special Formatting Is Required?

In this week's parsha Vayechi, the last parsha in Breishit, there is a word with a special formatting requirement, i.e. it has to be written in a particular way in the Torah scroll. Indeed, it is so important that according to some opinions, the formatting requirement can determine whether the sefer Torah is kosher or pasul (invalidated). What is the word and what is the requirement?

While the laws of writing a Torah scroll are numerous and complex, the scribe has has wide latitude on how to place the words in the columns. There is no halachic or mesorah imperative that the columns start or end with any particular word, and the scrolls vary from sefer to sefer. Although some sifrei Torah start all the columns with a “vav”, this custom is controversial, with sages such as Maimonides opposing it because it caused the scribes to stretch out letters to accommodate this layout, which made the Sefer Torah look deformed.

However, there are 6 exceptions to the “free formatting” rule. Six words in the Torah must appear at the top of the column. As mentioned already by Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri (13th century, France), these six words start with the following letters: "bet", "yud", "hey", "shin", "mem" and "vav" and they form the Hebrew acronym

ביה שמו
(pronounced BeYaH SHMO), meaning "with G-d's name".

The first word that must appear at the top of a column - the “bet” of BeYaH SHMO - is pretty obvious: It's the first word of the Torah – “breishit”.

In this week’s parsha, we find the second letter that must appear at the top of the column, and it’s the “yud” from the name “yehuda” in the pasuk:

יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ

(Breishit 49:8)

If you want to ensure that you have a proper sefer Torah, ask the person who gets the fourth aliyah to report to you whether “yehuda” was at the top of the column. And once you've assured the validity of your synagogue's sefer Torah, you will most definitely have a . . .  

Happy New Year!

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